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Ethics Matters

Choosing Sides in the Sperm Race

June 14, 1999
Web posted at: 1:23 p.m. EDT (1723 GMT)



by Jeffrey P. Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Director, Center for Bioethics
University of Minnesota

Nature has made the process of conception a close race between X and Y sperm. Slightly more females than males are born, but they're close enough to equal to keep the sexes in balance. People have tried everything from folk remedies to drugstore kits to tip the scales in favor of having a child of a particular sex, with limited success. Reasons for trying vary from living in a culture that places a higher value on boys, to achieving the vision of the perfect family, to avoiding sex-linked genetic diseases.

Center
for Bioethics

What's your opinion?

A new technique that increases the odds of successful sex selection was recently announced by a fertility clinic in Virginia. This process separates X and Y sperm so that sperm of one sex or the other can be used for artificial insemination. On average, it takes three trials of the technique to achieve successful conception -- at $2,500 per trial -- with a reported increase in the likelihood of conceiving a female from 50 percent to 90 percent, and a male from 50 percent to 70 percent. Is there some value in allowing natural processes to determine whether babies will be boys or girls, or should people select the sex of their children for whatever reasons they choose?

Avoiding genetic disease

Some genetic diseases affect almost exclusively males, because the genetic variations responsible for them occur on the X chromosome. Because males have only one X chromosome (from their mothers), any mutation on it will be expressed. These are called sex-linked genetic diseases, and women who carry them have two ways to avoid giving birth to children with what can be devastating conditions. Either a fetus can be tested and aborted if affected, or sex selection can be used to avoid conceiving any male children. For women and couples facing difficult family planning questions, sex selection is a new option.

Balancing the family

The Virginia clinic's reported policy is to use the technique only with couples facing sex-linked genetic disease, or who already have at least one child and want to have a child of the gender that is underrepresented in the family. So a couple with two boys would be approved to use the technique to conceive a daughter. The policy endorses sex selection for family balancing, but not for less wholesome reasons. But is family balancing such a good reason to choose sex selection?

The near equality of boys and girls born overall means that for every family with five boys, other families with an imbalance of girls will even things out. And for every family that hopes to rig the odds and have a girl after a string of boys, there will probably be another family with the opposite hope. So we probably shouldn't worry that efforts at family balancing will lead to an overall imbalance of the sexes. But it may lead to other bad effects.

Playing favorites

Some cultures place a greater value on male children than female, owing to the male's greater power in society, his role in carrying the family name, obligations for the families of girls to pay marriage dowries, and so on. In these cultures, there is strong incentive for sex selection. And it may well be that some people may just prefer to have girls rather than boys, or vice versa.

Aside from the message such preferences send to the gender we don't choose, using sex selection techniques to satisfy preferences is one more attempt to use money and technology to serve our desires. It is a further step toward making a commodity out of what has been up to now something of a miracle. And while there are good reasons to help miracles along, we should certainly ask how far we should go. We're now at the point where we can control when we'll have babies, how we'll have them, and now what kind of babies we'll have. But we have to ask whether using this control adds to how we think of the children we create or diminishes our wonder and appreciation of them.



Availability of a new technique that increases the odds of successful sex selection was recently announced by a fertility clinic in Virginia. This process separates X and Y sperm so that sperm of one sex or the other can be used for artificial insemination. Is there some value in allowing natural processes to determine whether babies will be boys or girls? Or should people be free to select the sex of their children for whatever reasons they choose?

Post your opinion here.



Visit the
"Ethics Matters" Archive
where you'll find other columns from Jeffrey Kahn
on a wide range of bioethics topics.


"Ethics Matters" is a biweekly feature from the
Center for Bioethics and CNN Interactive.


RELATED STORIES:
Researchers report success with sex selection method
September 9, 1998
Gender selection for babies poses ethical dilemmas
September 9, 1998
Surfing for sperm: Reproduction in cyberspace
July 24, 1998
Is there a difference between selling eggs and selling kidneys?
May 1998
Study: Age gap between partners linked to baby's sex
September 24, 1997

RELATED SITES:
Atlanta Reproductive Health Centre
American Society for Reproductive Medicine
Genetics & IVF Institute
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